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Conservation activist finds kindred spirits at county talk

Darby Nelson

Conservation activist/author Darby Nelson quickly learned he was preaching to the converted when he visited Park Rapids Tuesday.

Nearly 80 lake activists, Coalition of Lake Association members and interested persons crowded into a Headwaters Center for Lifelong Learning talk examining the future of Minnesota's lakes.

So many came, Northwoods Bank officials, which hosted the event, asked if some of the attendees could make room in the parking lot for bank customers.

Nelson's book, "For Love of Lakes," is one of four nonfiction finalists for the Minnesota Book Award.

Nelson, a former college professor and state legislator, was surprised and delighted to learn how proactive Hubbard County residents are about water quality issues and how prepared they are for the significant changes they will see with additional development and tourism.

He lightheartedly labeled his mission (to describe what Minnesota's lakes will look like in 50 years) as "Mission Impossible."

But he commended organizers on their vision in raising the subject.

Humans have a paradoxical relationship to their lakes, basically loving them to death.

"We participate in their deterioration," he said.

In an Environmental Protection Agency survey of 1,000 lakes, Nelson said 43 percent of rural lakes and 85 percent of urban lakes didn't meet water quality standards.

"Poor habitat, the lack of habitat complexity, high levels of nitrogen and phosphorous..." and other factors "triggers the growth of algae and bacteria," he said.

The more blue-green the algae, the more toxic it is to lakes, habitat and humans. When a lake turns to "pea soup," sound the death knell.

Nelson and his audience shared knowledge of what makes lake water quality deteriorate: those perfectly manicured and fertilized lawns that reach to the water's edge, erosion, toxic materials, leaves that fall into the water coated with phosphorous and removal of native shrubs and branches that form a protective zone for the aquatic life.

Cattle grazing along the lakeshore are another practice to avoid, Nelson advised.

Insects such as water fleas and dragonflies should be encouraged, he said, along with the growth of fresh water sponge, wild celery and chara, a green alga. They provide food sources and stability for bottom sediment and in the case of fresh water sponge, are an indication of a lake's vitality.

Nelson also warned of human habits, while well intentioned, that can be a death sentence for a lake. As an example, he mentioned the introduction of small mouth bass to a trout lake, which eventually destroyed the native habitat.

"We need to target our emotions to not out-maneuver reason," he cautioned.

To keep lakes healthy for the next 50 years, Nelson introduced a 14-point plan, much of which his audience nodded in agreement with.

Keep lawns natural, pressure lawmakers to pass stricter environmental legislation, keep impervious surfaces to a minimum, control runoff, obey environmental laws and stop removing native plants, are just a few suggestions.

And Nelson warned that more development on lakes would spell their doom.

He got a roomful of laughter when he asked whether the local variance board is granting too many exceptions to the law.

He characterized it as "we're sidestepping what's probably there for a reason."

Nelson admitted a particular fondness for the region, having spent three years working at Itasca State Park.

That's where he met wife Geri. And without the chocolates he bought at a Main Avenue confectionery in Park Rapids, he "couldn't have sealed the deal."

Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.

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